Back in the days when Madison Avenue was the center of the marketing world, the now-legendary ad man David Ogilvy and his agency dominated the marketing game with some of the most iconic advertisements in history. Rolls Royce, Marlboro, Dove—all of these major brands, as well as many others, were largely defined by the ad campaigns that Ogilvy himself had created.
What was the secret to his success? According to Ogilvy himself, it was his ability to write absolutely magnetic headlines that people couldn’t help but read and get sucked into the rest of the copy.
“On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy,” his research led him to famously conclude. “It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90% of your money.”
Here are a few of Ogilvy’s most famous ad headlines:
“‘Darling, I’m having the most extraordinary experience…'” (Dove)
“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”
“You can see the lemons in Schweppes Bitter Lemon. That’s because Schweppes uses whole fresh lemons. Juice, pulp, peel, everything.”
These headlines do everything advertising is supposed to do—they convey the benefit of the products while injecting a heavy dose of personality, setting the tone for the rest of the content and the brand itself.
“Great headlines are a crucial ingredient in any online marketing effort.”
Why Headlines Matter Today
You might be wondering what such an old-school marketer can teach you about anything in the age of social media, digital ad channels, content marketing, and email lists. The fact is that in all of those fields, written content is still the primary means of communication. And that means you’ll be writing headlines for almost everything you do, whether it’s a short Vine video, an AdWords campaign, a blog post, or anything else. Even if you’ve created a short video to be posted on social media, it still needs a headline.
According to Neil Patel and Joseph Putnam’s “The Definitive Guide to Copywriting,” headlines can be the difference between middling results and wild success. They wrote that in one case, changing a single word in an email headline increased clickthroughs by a staggering 46%.
“Open rates were nearly identical and the email creative was exactly the same for both versions, but clickthroughs went up by 46% in the second. If the ad was sent to 2,000,000 e-mails, the winning version would lead to 17,000+ more clicks, all from changing a single word. That’s a measurable difference that significantly impacts the bottom line,” Patel and Putnam write.
The evidence is clear: great headlines are a crucial ingredient in any online marketing effort. Here’s how you can write your own powerhouse headlines.
Start with the Four Us
This is really tip zero—a starting point for all headlines. Patel and Putnam lay out a powerful but simple framework called “the four Us” that will help guide your headline writing. Headlines, they argue, should be unique, ultra-specific, urgent, and useful. Let’s break down each one.
- Unique. Use unusual words, be a bit controversial, crack a joke—anything to break up the monotony of the same boring headlines we’re all bombarded with every day. Show some personality!
- Ultra-specific. People have very short attention spans online. They aren’t going to click on something if they don’t know what the payoff will be. An ultra-specific headline will let the reader know exactly what to expect.
- Urgency. KISSmetrics had a very successful blog post titled “Are You Losing Sales by Giving Customers Too Many Choices?” This is perfect: It invites the target audience (business owners and online marketers) to consider that very question and click through.
- Useful. This one is similar to the ultra-specific point—be direct and convey an obvious benefit to the reader.
You probably won’t be able to hit on all four of these qualities in one headline, but you should aim to incorporate at least one or two of them. This should be enough to get your readers to read on. With that foundation in mind, let’s move on to more technical tips.
1. Numbers and Digits—The List Article
The idea of list articles might elicit a groan from seasoned veterans of the Internet. After all, we can hardly go 10 minutes without a BuzzFeed listicle crossing our screens. But there’s a good reason for that: list articles—and their headlines—get clicked.
WordStream explained that readers’ eyes are naturally drawn to headlines that contain digits. This is because the juxtaposition of numbers and words is a very eye-catching technique, much in the same way contrasting colors instantly catch our attention.
2. Include the Benefit Right in the Headline
Look at the headline of this article. It gives you a clear benefit that you can expect to get from reading the rest of the copy. It’s all about demonstrating a clear value proposition to your reader—the kind of ultra-specific headline that Patel and Putnam suggest. You knew that this article would teach you how to write better headlines before you even clicked on it. Right away, it was clear to you that this would be something useful.
3. Use Data
Not every piece of content will lend itself to including data in the headline, but when it does, it’s a powerful tool for building better headlines. Consider some of the following hypothetical examples—which ones do you think would draw a reader in more?
- “Attract More Readers” vs. “How I Attracted 40% more readers”
- “Boost Your Sales Using These Tips” vs. “Boost Your Sales by 20% with These Tips”
- “Most People do X” vs. “4 out of 5 People Do X”
Including a statistic or number in your headline gives a sense of magnitude for the topic you’re discussing. It’s much easier to visualize the implications of what you’re talking about ahead of time if there’s a simple data point right in the headline.
4. Write Multiple Headlines
As WordStream’s blog post “19 Headline Writing Tips for More Clickable, Shareable Blog Posts” points out, your first headline idea will almost never be your best. Flesh out as many ideas as possible so you have multiple choices for your headline. This is time-consuming, but when you consider how important headlines are (remember Ogilvy), you’ll see that this is well worth it. Try different combinations of verbs, adjectives, numbers, and overall lengths to see which headlines flow best and touch on as many of the four Us as possible.
As an aside, it’s worth using keywords in your headlines as well. Play around with the placement and see how you can use your keywords in as naturally as possible. But if it just doesn’t work, don’t force it. It’s not worth writing a clunky headline just for the sake of getting a keyword in there.
5. Keep It Short
The best headlines are the ones you can read in their entirety in the Google Search rankings. This means you need to keep them under 70 characters, or 6 to 8 words. This helps in terms of SEO and also readability. If someone can’t read your entire headline in the Google rankings, they’ll be much less likely to click through.
Content is king, and the headline is his crown jewel. By understanding the art and science behind great headlines, you’ll attract your ideal readers—those who convert into paying customers.
What You Can Do Right Now
Ready to take a crack at crafting some stellar headlines? Get going today with these tips.
- Remember the four Us: headlines should be unique, ultra-specific, urgent, and useful.
- Rework some of your previous headline attempts with data or other numbers to increase their punch.
- Run through several drafts of a headline, then test your best effort on a few friends or colleagues and ask for feedback.